Playing Games with Names

April 7, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

The research findings on names, alluded to in yesterday’s post, seems absurd at first glance. Do people really make important life decisions – choices about where to live and what career to follow – because their “implicit egotism” makes a place or profession more attractive if it has echoes of their own names?

Even failure, these psychologists claim, can mesh with this egotism. A study of baseball players across 90 years found that players whose names began with a K were slightly more likely to strike out. The authors (Nelson and Simmons), in a press release, put it this way:
Even Karl ‘Koley’ Kolseth would find a strikeout aversive, but he might find it a little less aversive than players who do not share his initials, and therefore he might avoid striking out less enthusiastically.
The difference is small – 18.8% vs. 17.2% – but statistically significant. Still, I wonder about the studies that the authors didn’t report on. Did they see if those K hitters also had slightly higher rates of hitting home runs? Home runs – four-baggers, blasts, clouts, slams, moonshots – are not brought to you by the letter K. But I think that there may be a correlation between HRs and Ks. If so, those K batters (Kiner, Kingman, Kaline, Killebrew, Kluszewki) are not the guys for whom striking out is ego-syntonic. They’re the muscle boys who swing for the fences. Sometimes they connect, but they also tend to strike out more often.* Perhaps that slight difference in both statistics is a matter of ethnicity rather than egotism.

Something else – the article (or at least the press release about it) reports only on batters. There’s no mention of pitchers throwing strikeouts. Did the authors check to see if a K-hurler was more likely to outfan the rest of the alphabet? Or maybe they did, and just didn’t bother to report the results.*

Then there’s Georgia and Florence. One of the studies reported in the article by Pelham, et. al. finds that the number of women named Georgia living in Georgia is well above what we would expect; ditto for Florences in Florida.

Is this a Peach State effect or a Southern effect? I grew up in Pennsylvania, and I went to school in Massachusetts. I don’t recall meeting any girls or women named Georgia. And I haven’t encountered any among all the students I’ve taught over the years in New Jersey. I think Georgia is more popular in the South, and my guess is that you’d find the name over-represented not just in Georgia but in South Carolina and Alabama too. As far as I know, the researchers didn’t run that analysis.

Florence is also a southern name, at least in Florida. I’d bet a lot of money that those Florences are not evenly distributed throughout the Sunshine State. You probably won’t find too many of them in Tallahassee or Tampa or Orlando. You have to go farther south, say to Miami. Again, my guess is ethnicity, not egotism.

I’m reminded of the old Carnak joke. Carnak was a character Johnny Carson did on the Tonight Show – the mystic who could divine the answers to questions before he had even seen them. He would say the answer, then open the envelope and read the question that was inside. This one is from 1989, when the S&L crisis was at its peak.

I still remember this one after all these years:

The answer: Venice, Rome, and Florence.
The question: Name two Italian cities and the president of Hadassah.

* TheSocioBlog’s first ever post, inspired by a joke from Kieran Healy’s blog, was about negative results.

1 comment:

Todd Krohn said...

I came from New York but have have spent most of my adult years living in Georgia. I think I've known and/or met one "Georgia" the entire time, and of the thousands of students taught over the past decade, never had one Georgia that I can recollect.

Not that my anecdotal evidence negates the findings, but I've probably met more Florence's (or "Flo's" as we might say) over the years.

But they may be on to something re baseball. I played little league for years and had a rather high strikeout to hits ratio.

[sobbing] Those bastards.